We love our restaurants: According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans eat about 24 percent — almost one quarter — of their meals away from home.
But diners beware: Restaurant food is meant to look and taste great, says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and that means nutrition can sometimes fall by the wayside when menus feature main dishes drenched in butter or rich sauces, salads with creamy dressings, and few whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
We spoke with the experts to bring you the best tips for enjoying a meal out while sticking to a healthy eating plan.
1. Sleuth It Out
These days, you can find healthful foods almost everywhere, says Judy Caplan, MS, RDN, former Academy spokesperson. The trick is to know what you're getting into before you get to the restaurant and are tempted by enticing menu descriptions. Many restaurants have their menus online — some with nutrition information readily available. You'll be able to choose the destination with the healthiest options, and go into the eatery ready to order the best meal and ask for substitutions where necessary.
2. Don't Split Your Plate
You've probably read advice to ask for half portions or share your meal with a friend. But, according to Ansel, given the huge portion sizes doled out at some restaurants, "Half may still be too much." She recommends visualizing what your plate would look like at home and trying to replicate that in your restaurant meal.
3. Add to Your Meal
Think eating healthfully is all about what you can't eat? Caplan encourages diners to think about what healthy items they can add to their plates instead of only what foods to avoid. Look for whole-grain breads, pastas and sides; opt for foods with healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds; be sure to order up lots of fruits and veggies; and go for lean meat, turkey, chicken or fish.
4. Don't Go Hungry
You sit down starving, and before you know it you've scarfed down several pieces of buttered bread before your main meal arrives. If you're already hungry before you leave for the restaurant, nosh on a small snack such as a piece of fruit. Or, at the restaurant, order a cup of broth-based soup or small salad to stave off hunger.
5. Watch for the Wording
The way a dish is described in a menu can give you clues to how it's prepared. Look for words including "grilled," "broiled" or "steamed," meaning the food is cooked with less fat, and avoid dishes with descriptions such as "fried," "breaded," "smothered," "alfredo," "rich" and "creamy."
6. Ask, Ask, Ask
Don't be afraid to ask your server to help you healthy-up your meal. For example, Ansel recommends asking for a salad in place of the usual fries or chips with a meal. You can also ask for items to be prepared with less oil or cheese, ask the server to take away the bread basket and serve salad with dressing on the side, and request an appetizer portion of a main meal.
You can even often order "off-menu" — for example, ask what vegetarian dish the chef can prepare for you or if it's possible to make grilled chicken and steamed vegetables. Many restaurants are happy to comply.
If you enjoy dining out, don't think you have to stop if you want to stay healthy. With some preparation and savvy substitutions, you can order meals that are as nutritious as the ones you prepare at home.